hidden in darkness

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As the sporadic posts of the last couple of weeks suggest, I’m not exactly bursting with outward commentary. Indeed, I feel my thoughts drifting away; my soul diminished and wandering. Seeking but not finding,; hoping but not tasting; dancing with two left feet and a right that doesn’t know the steps.

I find my attempts at writing to be sporadic and wispy. I sit down and my brain doesn’t seem to have any connection with my fingers. They start a few words then pause, finding little to say and for that matter what is said to be not all that interesting. Why is this? There could be many reasons, some mundane other not so much. The reasons may have to do with diet, or the change in seasons, or needing exercise or sun or a good swath of time sailing. Maybe I thought my birthday blew by, but it didn’t blow by as much as I thought. Maybe with my becoming 32 my unconscious took a rigorous stock of my present reality and suggested to my psyche it doesn’t think much of what it sees. My psyche responds appropriate leaving me in the doldrums, stuck in irons, praying for a whisper of wind to puff me back on course.

However, through my recent, apparent look inward that has crippled my reaching outward, I have happened to pick up a few new books, two of which are particularly noteworthy. The first is a rigorous biography of John Wesley by Henry Rack. The second is a more lyrical biography of Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton.

These books are interesting and timely. Wesley isn’t new to me. I first encountered him with a good bit of passion while a junior at Wheaton, and decided that if his discipline was good enough for him, I’d have a go at it. Needless to say, no one ever taught me that along with deepening and disciplined spirituality often comes a dark night of the soul. The soul seeking the depths goes through a spiritual night, feeling dry and distant and altogether hopeless. No one told me about that part, and no one knew what to say during that first dark night which lasted about 3/4 of my junior year. I had to discover answers on my own — which is not a pretty method. I wrote on Wesley in college and then in seminary, finding both his theology and his devotion fascinating.

So, now I’m back with Wesley. Having walked down a long road of discovery I encounter him with a lot more depth and a lot more empathy.

In 1735 Wesley joined his brother Charles on a mission to Georgia, the burgeoning colony in the New World. He had been a Fellow, a tutor, at Oxford prior to this, and there began the initial attempts at group spirituality which was called Methodism. After getting his M.A. and teaching at Oxford, Wesley had a lot of ups and a lot of downs. He struggled to pursue the depths and sought help in deep books, in wise friends, and through renewed zeal in facing the Spiritual life. One of his influences during this time was Macarius the Egyptian — who because of Wesley I hunted down and in doing so found some of the most influential spiritual books I’ve read.

Even though there was a lot of learning, Rack sums up Wesley’s pastoral attempts prior to 1735 by saying, “All in all, Methodism in its earliest form and original home was a failure.” Wesley made no mark on Oxford during that time.

Thus, feeling his spiritual run at Oxford coming to an end, he thought a setting that offered a “primitive Christianity” would do the trick.

Wesley was 32 when he left Oxford to go to Georgia. In early 1738, Wesley arrived back in England not only a failure but with tales of scandalous behavior attached to his name. He was not very good with the ladies, it seems, and was not very good as a pastor to colonial souls either.

When he arrived back he had to give an account of himself to those who sent him, and this included defending his actions for which arrest warrants had been issued. More than this, Wesley was in despair that having gone to save the indians and colonists he lost his own soul along the way, no longer having any path towards the depths of the Spirit who called him. He was about 36 before he found renewal.

Francis of Assisi is new to me. I’ve always appreciated him from afar for his legendary devotion to God and his passionate love for God’s creation. But, I never studied him.

I find him as fascinating as I find Wesley, for much the same reason. Both were extraordinary leaders of world changing movements. They died having, literally, changed the world in a profound way. Each resonated to their own time, and resonates to our time in ways that most of us don’t realize. The Spirit did a mighty work in these characters.

After missteps and failures Francis found himself a dismal cave to sleep in and sought God apart from any human encumbrances. He gave up everything.

Chesterton writes this:

It may be suspected that in that black cell or cave Francis passed the blackest hours of his life. By nature he was the sort of many who has that vanity which is the opposite of pride; that vanity which is very near to humility. He never despised his fellow creatures and therefore he never despised the opinion of his fellow creatures; including the admiration of his fellow creatures. All that part of his human nature had suffered the heaviest and most crushing blows.

It is possible that after his humiliating return from his frustrated military campaign he was called a coward. It is certain that after his quarrel with his father about the bales of cloth he was called a thief. And even those who had sympathized most with him, the priest whose church he had restored, the bishop whose blessing he had received, had evidently treated him with an almost humorous amiability which left only too clear the ultimate conclusion of the matter.

He had made a fool of himself.

Any man who has been young, who has ridden horses or thought himself ready for a fight, who has fancied himself as a troubadour and accepted the conventions of comradeship, will appreciate the ponderous and crushing weight of that simple phrase.

The conversion of St. Francis, like the conversion of St. Paul, involved his being in some sense flung suddenly from a horse; but in a sense it was an even worse fall; for it was a war-horse. Anyhow, there was not a rag of him left that was not ridiculous. Everybody knew that at the best he had made a fool of himself. It was a solid objective fact, like the stones in the road, that he had made a fool of himself. He saw himself as a n object, very small and distinct like a fly walking on a clear window pane; and it was unmistakably a fool. And as he stared at the word “fool” written in luminous letters before him, the word itself began to shine and change.

This is a refrain in the lives of the greatest Christians throughout history. They met failure and disaster and frustration and darkness and confusion through their twenties and into their thirties, being broken and restored and broken again. They were tempered into becoming profound leaders by first being willing to become profound fools.

I spent many years studying theology and ministry. I’ve never heard this sort of thing in any philosophy of leadership class. The church looks in the same ways as the world, trusting what is strong and whole and seen. Trusting that an unimpeached life is a symbol of mastery over the elements.

Meanwhile fools are still being made. And the church has been, is, and will be built by such as these. They do not shine, yet, and they do not stand out, yet. But, God is doing a work, hiding his work under the cover of darkness to be brought out when the dawn arrives.

This is encouraging, I think. It’s ridiculous, to be sure, but it is encouraging.

4 Responses to “hidden in darkness”

  1. MED Says:

    While what you say is surely true and important, I imagine it’s even more important to point out that great numbers of the “greatest Christians throughout history” never achieved any worldly acclaim, either before or after their deaths. Perhaps no one ever saw them as leaders, least of all they, themselves, or perhaps those who recognized them as leaders were as ineffectual on human terms as these nameless great ones.

    THAT sort of Christian, too, is still being made — the kind that dies a fool and is swiftly forgotten. I daresay, however, that their heavenly reward will be entirely out of proportion to their worldly recognition.


  2. Patrick Says:

    Oh yes! Absolutely this is true, and an important caveat.

    It’s not about getting earthly acclaim, it’s about serving God. Only, it’s so easy to equate serving God with having all sorts of success and honor. These kinds of stories, the stories we do know, suggest that God is doing a much more curious work in lives than we realize.

    These Christians whose names we don’t know are the reason why I believe in Christ today, two thousand years after he came out of the tomb. They did a work, a profound work, in often crushing circumstances to speak and live the Gospel. Only we don’t know their names, or their stories, and that makes for a harder post. 🙂

    Your comment reminds me of a passage from Twain’s short story, “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”:

    “That is the heavenly justice of it – they warn’t rewarded
    according to their deserts, on earth, but here they get their
    rightful rank. That tailor Billings, from Tennessee, wrote poetry
    that Homer and Shakespeare couldn’t begin to come up to; but nobody
    would print it, nobody read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot,
    and they laughed at it.

    “Whenever the village had a drunken frolic and a dance, they would drag him in and crown him with cabbage leaves, and pretend to bow down to him; and one night when he was sick and nearly starved to death, they had him out and crowned him, and then they rode him on a rail about the village, and everybody
    followed along, beating tin pans and yelling.

    “Well, he died before morning. He wasn’t ever expecting to go to heaven, much less that there was going to be any fuss made over him, so I reckon he was a
    good deal surprised when the reception broke on him.”

  3. christina Says:

    Grace and peace to you, my friend and fellow wanderer.

    A mutual friend of ours suggested I read Merton. I’m sure MED would concur. 😉

  4. Patrick Says:

    Yeah, Merton is good stuff. His Seeds of Contemplation happened to show up in my life right when I really needed it.